Friday, August 12, 2011

Running Along a Mirror's Edge

Grab your running shoes, because we're jumping straight into Mirror's Edge, the 2008 running simulator from DICE. This first-person platformer was a fresh face in a market saturated with serialized franchises and dark, gritty shooters, but it wasn't without its problems. Disjointed flow, unpolished combat, an underdeveloped story, short length, and sometimes excessive trial-and-error hold it back from perfection, but the rest of the game is so good that it's still worth playing. If you've never played it, continue reading to find out why you should.

Mirror's Edge is set in a sort of utopian future where there's no crime, but the government monitors and regulates everyone and everything. In order to bypass the government scrutiny, an underground movement of "Runners" was established to send messages and deliveries, and to perform intelligence operations. Runners operate on foot, running along rooftops and through alleys to avoid detection. You play as Faith, a runner back in the business after a nasty fall, who gets in over her head when her sister is framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate.

The rest of the game is about getting to the bottom of the coup by spying on police agents, meeting with informants, infiltrating security bases, and doing a lot of running. A sub-plot arises about mid-way through, wherein it's revealed that a private security firm has been hired to infiltrate and eliminate the runners. But your main objective is to rescue your sister and prove her innocence. 

Unfortunately, there's not very much weight to the plot. You meet with a couple of characters and follow leads, but their names and faces are all forgettable because you don't spend much time interacting with anyone or being involved in the plot. Most of the time you're just a passive recipient who's told things before going off on another running assignment. The backstory isn't developed at all; we don't really know what's going on with the government or why they're supposed to be the bad guys. It's not a major issue because the gameplay is fun enough, but the overall experience could've been better with more of a plot.

The gameplay is a hybrid of platforming, action, and adventure. As a runner, you have to get from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible, jumping from building to building, balancing along pipes, sliding down cable lines, wall-jumping, climbing up pipes, and bounding around obstacles. This is the bulk of the experience. As an example of what it's like, watch the video below. Click the link underneath to skip to the actual gameplay at 0:23 (in a new tab/window).

It's extremely fun to cruise through the levels, landing your jumps and bounding around obstacles in one fluid stream of momentum. The first-person perspective adds a lot to the thrill, because it gets you closer to the action and makes you feel more involved in it. It's kind of a double-edged sword, though, because it limits your ability to see platforms and things in the level, which can be frustrating at times, but that's really the magic of what makes it so fun. Taking a leap of faith (I get it, that's her name) based on the level cues adds a lot of tension that's quickly released once you make your landing.

These cues are represented as "runner vision," a feature that highlights key objects in the environment with a bright red hue. If there's a block that will be extra helpful to vault onto a ledge, it'll be red; if there's a platform that you need to jump from, it'll be red; if there's a pipe you need to climb, it'll be red. This is pretty much essential to figure out where you need to go, since you don't always have time to stop and think about where you're going. 

You're often being chased by armed police agents, and the game commands you to just keep running, which is why you need to take those leaps of faith and trust the cues sometimes. If you stop to look around, they'll close in and shoot you to death. This is another twist that helps to make the game compelling and exciting; not a lot of games encourage you to run from fights (except slow, suffocating survival-horrors). Just going through the levels can be exciting on its own, but it's made even more so when you know that certain death is behind you. 

But this is also where the trial-and-error comes into play, because despite the runner vision, it's not always clear where you need to go or what you need to do. You inevitably have to stop in a few levels to poke your nose around the environment in order to get a feel for what's going on, meaning that you'll eventually get shot and start from the last checkpoint. At other times, the frantic pace has you jumping towards platforms that you can't see until mid-air, and it becomes a rote process of dying, learning the level layout, and running it again. 

First-person combat: kicking an enemy off the ledge.

Mirror's Edge encourages you to avoid combat whenever possible, just by running away, but there are times when you're forced to fight enemies. This is also a double-edged sword, because it can be really satisfying or really frustrating. It's basically impossible to take on more than two enemies at a time, and even two's likely to get you killed, so you're expected to isolate enemies and fight them individually. Your options are to either beat them unconscious with punches and kicks, or to steal their weapon and knock them in out in a single, carefully-timed "execution" maneuver. That is, when the enemy's gun flashes red, you can right-click to take it and knock him out in one fell swoop, or should you fail, you get punched in the face several times.

There's a reflex feature that allows you to toggle slow-motion to time these maneuvers more accurately, but I swear the system is broken and inconsistent. Many-a-time I clicked when the enemy's weapon flashed red and got killed immediately afterwards. If you can get a gun, though, you can use it to shoot other enemies. You're limited to one magazine per gun (and you can't manually check how many bullets you have left), so you have to swap guns out on the fly. It's not supposed to be a first-person shooter, so the shooting mechanics are primitive, but it gets the job the done for its limited purpose. I actually thought it was fun disarming enemies and shooting them down.

It adds a lot to the tension knowing that you're actually fairly vulnerable and unarmed. Even when you have a gun, your ammo is limited and your ability to run, jump, and dodge gets reduced. You feel empowered with a shotgun, but you have to sacrifice it sometimes in order to move more efficiently. There's no health meter--when you take damage the edges of the screen turn red and your vision blurs. If you take too much damage too quickly, then you die, but health regenerates if you can avoid taking damage for several seconds. The end effect is that combat actually feels tense with each and every encounter. 

Another noticeable problem comes from the disjointed flow. It alternates between frantic chase scenes, close-quarters combat, unrestricted exploration, first-person cutscenes, and two-dimensional cel-shaded cutscenes. The idea, I suppose, is to give you some variety to mix it up, but you run into situations where the pacing bogs down completely. Every chapter has one or two elevators where you just stand there for 60 seconds doing nothing, which just takes you completely out of the flow of the game. At other times your flow gets disrupted when the runner vision fails to properly cue you what to do, and your momentum comes to halt as you stop and wander around looking for a platform.

The visual aesthetic is also very pleasing and refreshing. While a lot of games have been striving for dark, gritty atmospheres, Mirror's Edge goes for bright and crisp visuals. The buildings are a clean white with contrasting blues and reds. There's also a ton of bloom, lens flares, refraction and reflection. It's all very pleasing to look at and feels uniquely memorable. The music--a sort of synthetic, electronic-sounding ambiance--compliments the visuals very well. 

The game is also surprisingly short. Steam clocked me finishing in about 7 hours, though you could probably beat it in 5 if you know what you're doing. I thought a 10 hour campaign was short, but this might be the shortest full-priced game I've played in perhaps ever. 

So yeah, the game's got its problems, but what it gets right is bloody well done. There's really nothing else like it. The platforming is fun and enjoyable, the combat can be really tense and exciting, the atmosphere is pleasing to be in, and the feeling of bounding over obstacles and leaping over huge chasms in one fluid stream of momentum is so deeply rewarding that it makes up for all of the other shortcomings. 

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